War Against Conscience Rights

Nancy Valko
June 2009
Reproduced with Permission

First they came for the Communists but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists but I was not one of them, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews but I was not Jewish so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak for me. - Pastor Martin Niemöller (Lutheran theologian and pastor who opposed the Nazis)

In December 2008, the Bush administration announced stronger protections for health care providers' conscience rights, protecting them from workplace discrimination. In February 2009, the Obama administration quietly started the process of overturning those conscience protections.1

These actions did not occur in a vacuum.

The stage was set several years ago, when a concerted effort was started by abortion supporters to force pharmacists to supply Plan B (the "morning after pill") without a prescription - despite some pharmacists' moral objections to this drug, which can cause an abortion shortly after conception (according to the manufacturers' own description of Plan B's actions).

Just like the initial roundup of communists in Pastor Niemöller's quote, there were few public objections - except, of course, from the pro-life community. Some states have gone even further in coercing consciences by advocating laws that would force Catholic hospitals to supply Plan B to rape victims, even though the hospitals object.

But the agenda was always larger than just the pharmacists and Plan B.

This was made clear when the Bush administration announced strengthening conscience-rights protections for medical professionals. The reaction from abortion supporters and the mainstream media was immediate: For example, a December 24, 2008 editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch baldly stated, "Doctors, nurses and pharmacists choose professions that put patients' rights first. If they foresee that priority becoming problematic for them, they should choose another profession."2 (emphasis added) But if the conscience-rights line cannot be drawn at the easily understandable, scientific fact of abortion, what happens when the discussion turns to euthanasia and the whole area of end-of-life care?

Barbara Coombs Lee, one of the euthanasia supporters behind Oregon's law legalizing assisted suicide, exposed the radical agenda behind the war on conscience rights when she wrote in January 2009 "Now comes a federal rule encouraging workers to exercise their idiosyncratic convictions at the expense of patient care. Employees who, for example, might exalt suffering, or disapprove of discontinuing feeding tubes or respiratory support have license under this rule to refuse to deliver or support any treatment or procedure."3 Apparently Lee also believes that health-care providers who refuse to participate in life-ending decisions because of their moral convictions should choose another profession.

And the proposed destruction of conscience rights for health-care providers is not a peculiarly American issue. For example, in a January speech to a group in Ireland, UK ethicist Baroness Mary Warnock called doctors who refuse to cooperate in assisted suicide "genuinely wicked".4

But by eliminating conscience rights for health-care providers who adhere to traditional medical ethics, we will effectively eliminate future as well as present ethical health-care providers from the health-care system. Right now, massive health-care changes are looming. And with a health-care system solely populated with doctors and nurses who are comfortable with ending life at any age, will medical ethics devolve even further into mere issues of legality and economics rather than principles and respect for human lives?

Thus, Pastor Niemöller's wisdom about the consequences of silence comes to its logical end with this campaign to end conscience rights: First they came for the pharmacists, then the nurses, then the doctors. And in the end, without this thin white line of ethical caregivers who refuse to deliberately end lives, there is nothing standing in the way of a conscienceless health-care system terminating any of us at any age and with any unfortunate condition.

Neither patients nor health-care professionals can expect mercy in a culture of death unless we all speak up.


1 "Health Workers' 'Conscience' Rule Set to Be Voided" by Rob Stein. Washington Post, February 28, 2009. Available online at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/02/27/AR2009022701104_pf.html. [Back]

2 "An Unconscionable Conscience Rule" St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial, December 24, 2008. Available online at: http://www.stltoday.com/blogzone/the-platform/published-editorials/2008/12/an-unconscionable-conscience-rule/. [Back]

3 "New HHS 'Conscience' Rule Jeopardizes End-of-Life Pain Care" by Barbara Coombs Lee. Huffington Post blog. Available online at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/barbara-coombs-lee/new-hhs-conscience-rule-j_b_155934.html. [Back]

4 "Doctors Who Refuse Assisted Suicide 'Genuinely Wicked' says UK Bioethics 'Philosopher Queen'" by Hilary White. Lifesite News, January 7, 2009. Available online at http://www.lifesitenews.com/ldn/2009/jan/09010706.html. See also http://www.bioedge.org/index.php/bioethics/bioethics_article/wicked_doctors_refuse_ to_help_aged_commit_suicide_says_warnock/. [Back]